Cover Story
The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Story by Stu Neal, Contributing Writer



For many of us, Christmases of the past are among our fondest memories, and the toys of childhood are tangible reminders of those golden days.

Such memories might include rising before dawn on Christmas morning, sneaking into the living room to behold a tree bedecked in splendor, sheltering brightly colored packages, each containing a hidden treasure begging to be picked up, carefully shaken, then tucked back into its original place beneath the boughs.

Later, amid torn paper and shredded boxes, there sat that special toy, before only glimpsed in a store window, or seen between cartoons on Saturday-morning television — a toy begged for and dreamed of for months — a dream now come true.

Each year had a different story, a different dream. And as generations changed, so did the toys. But regardless of your age or gender, chances are, when you recall your early play things, a smile will come to your face. The toys of childhood invoke pleasant memories of a simpler time.

It was only a short span from those times to another, when clothes, school, adolescence, cars, relationships and then families of our own, in turn, took precedence in our lives. Those cherished toys — once so important — lost our interest. Battle-worn with use, most were thrown out, passed along or packed away in a box destined for a corner in the attic or garage, to be forgotten.

And then one day, decades later, that carton is rediscovered and opened. Memories of that happy, simpler time come rushing back.

For those of us who collect old toys, the opportunity to surround ourselves with these pleasant pieces of the past may be what makes it such an enjoyable pastime and hobby. In today’s world, this hobby can even be an excellent investment.


In this country, the earliest toys were usually homemade. Mothers lovingly sewed dolls using whatever materials were at hand. Fathers crafted rocking horses and pull-toys from wood, or made doll houses for their daughters. Marbles, one of the most popular games in Colonial days, were crafted from clay rolled into balls and hardened by fire. Games such as dominoes, checkers, and jackstraws (pick-up-sticks) were very popular and could be played by the whole family. Yo-yos, spinning tops, and Cup & Ball were some of the early commercially made toys available.

As our country matured and grew, so did the interests of the young. The industrial era introduced technical wonders: sailing ships turned to steamships; land transportation sprouted locomotives; and muzzle loaders were replaced by repeater rifles. Those same technologies spawned a whole new generation of toys as metal replaced wood. Metals were easy to form or mold into almost any shape, and were much more durable. Toys of the era included cast-iron locomotives with moving wheels, tin boats that rolled on cast-iron wheels, and early cap guns in cast iron.

In the late 1800s, a company called Ives Manufacturing began producing clockworks and mechanical toys in Bridge­port, Conn. Ives became known for producing some of the finest examples made in this country. They were extremely expensive. Among the most popular were key-wound mechanical figures that walked, using small rollers under the feet. The company also brought motion to the toy trains using the key-wound clockwork mechanisms. Today the early Ives trains are among the most sought-after by train collectors.

Technology exploded with the arrival of the 20th century. Horses were replaced by gas-powered vehicles. Electricity expanded into every facet of life. Machines did much of what had previously been done by sheer muscle. The toy world followed. Electric motors began to replace key-wound devices to power a whole new generation of toys.

Lionel Trains took the Ives toy-train concept to a new level, using electricity to power the train around an actual track that could be assembled on the floor. This became one of the most popular toys of the time. With the trains came buildings and accessories, allowing entire towns and layouts to be built by a young generation.

Erector Sets are a household word for most Baby Boomers, but they were an entirely new concept when introduced by A.C. Gilbert in 1913. Using the sets, one could build almost anything by connecting girders and plates with screws, including buildings and towers (the idea was conceived by Gilbert while watching workers building a real tower with girders and rivets) and expanding to cars, trucks, and Ferris wheels. One version even allowed construction of a huge blimp.


Tinker Toys were introduced at about the same time, and became to the younger set what Erector Sets were to older children. Designed by Charles Pajeau in 1914, the concept was totally rejected at the American Toy Fair that year. In response to that rejection, Pajeau hired several children, dressed them as elves, and had them play with the toys in a department store window in Chicago during the Christmas season. By the next year he had sold over a million of the sets.

Another construction toy of the era, Lincoln Logs, debuted in 1916 and went on to great success. Nearly 40 years later, in 1953, it would become the first toy ever promoted on television.

Teddy Bears, named after President Teddy Roosevelt, were originally designed from a cartoon of a bear being saved by the president. By 1915, they became the “must-have” toy for nearly every child in the country. The designer of the bear, Morris Michtom, used the profits received to start one of the most famous toy companies in the world, the Ideal Toy Company, in 1903.

As cars and trucks became a mainstay of American culture, the smaller versions followed. In the 1920s, Buddy L started producing larger toy trucks and cars made of pressed steel. Kids loved the rugged feel of a toy that could be put to work in a sand box. Parents loved that they were nearly indestructible. Tonka Toys, Marx, Structo and other toy manufacturers were quick to produce their own versions.

Movies inspired many of the toys of the mid 1900s. Walt Disney’s visions jumped from the screen to character toys, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse. From wind-up tin toys that jumped, rolled, and swirled, to dolls and plush toys, the variety of characters guaranteed a steady stream of change. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers found their adventures in space repeated in the homes of children across America, with space ships that sparked when rolled, and ray guns that flashed when the trigger was pulled.

Then came the ’50s and the advent of plastics, inexpensive batteries, and electronics. Probably no other period saw such change in the variety of toys available, and the decreased costs of transportation allowed toys to be imported at prices that made them affordable. Every town had a five-and-ten-cent store, where toy soldiers for an army could be acquired at a few cents each. New plastic model kits allowed us to assemble the planes, tanks and jeeps in detail never before seen ... at under a dollar each.

Battery-powered toys from Japan became all the rage, entertaining not just kids but adults. Politically incorrect today, they reflected a society with a humor that has been unmatched since. A grandfather toy rocked his rocker, puffed on a pipe ... and blew real smoke rings. A bartender figure mixed drinks in a shaker and raised the glass to his lips ... causing his cheeks to glow red and ears to smoke. The U.S.-based Marx, the largest toymaker of the era, was a leader in innovative battery-powered and wind-up tin toys.


And while U.S. toymakers were making vehicles larger, across the Atlantic a company in England called Lesney started making them smaller; small enough to fit in a matchbox. Highly detailed to resemble actual cars, trucks, and military vehicles, they were an instant hit in the United States. Matchbox cars, originally offered for around 59 cents, can now command from $20 to hundreds in their original boxes.

The ’50s also ushered in an era of fast cars. Following suit, U.S. toymakers brought us electric-powered slot cars, where drivers raced each other around a track and controlled the speed with a hand-held controller. Aurora, a leader in plastic model kits, was the most successful with the introduction of HO-scale slot cars, which mated quite nicely with Lionel and American Flyer train layouts.

Today, the thousands of vintage toys produced have one thing in common — somewhere, somebody collects them. The value of the contents of that long-forgotten box in the attic might surprise. Thanks to the Internet, a quick trip to eBay or a dealer Web site makes determining the value of vintage toys easier than ever. Novices should note, however, that condition, not rarity, usually dictates the value of an old toy. Collectors seek out only the most pristine examples, and will pay top dollar for those “unplayed-with” toys. Well-worn or damaged toys, however rare, are often worthless to collectors.

But if you remember the day you opened it, and if it brings a smile to your face and a story to share, who cares? Get it out of that box. Let the grandchildren play with it. It’s the memories that are priceless.

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